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FILM REVIEW: The Eagle Huntress

We review new documentary The Eagle Huntress, the debut feature from Otto Bell.

When you think Mongolia, you probably think Genghis Khan: a (supposedly) bloodthirsty warlord who conquered most of Asia and Europe and collected the skulls of his foes. It’s probably not the first place one might consider to look for a feel-good feminist parable. How wrong we were. Director Otto Bell’s debut documentary explores the frosty Steppe and unearths a quaint tale of a girl’s rite-of-passage.

The Eagle Huntress documents the journey of Aisholpan, a thirteen year-old girl born into a family of eagle hunters. She yearns to train the majestic birds and follow in her ancestors’ footsteps. Mongolian tradition, however, dictates eagle hunting is strictly reserved for men. With the help of her father, Aisholpan defies expectations and catches her own eaglet. She then proceeds to compete against her male counterparts in the prodigious eagle tournament, shocking them all with her natural talent. Can she and her winged companion soar from the frozen plains through the glass ceiling? You bet they can.
The shining light at the centre of The Eagle Huntress is the lead, Aisholpan. From the moment we meet our young protagonist the size of the challenge she confronts is constantly reinforced. No-one, the film reiterates, has done what this precocious teenager is trying. A women has never hunted with an eagle, let alone a thirteen year-old girl. Aisholpan, however, is totally unfazed. We watch as she scrambles down rock faces, and playfully pets deadly birds almost as big as herself. She doesn’t even blink as she parades on horseback in front of crowds of bemused Mongols. It would be easy to chalk this courage down to youthful naivety, but there is something especially endearing about her bubbly determination. She just smiles away, again and again, seemingly unaware that people are looking at her – that we are looking at her!

The protagonist’s trials and successes take on a wider significance. As The Eagle Huntress progresses, Aisholpan’s struggles are increasingly presented as a conflict between a fearless girl and an antiquated patriarch. The film makes efforts to stress the contrast between the fresh-faced young girl and the snide old men against whom she competes. Small sexist comments uttered off screen are left on the soundtrack, and the camera constantly cuts away to ogling eyes. It’s a hostile environment, the film (and in particular, the narration) reiterates, and one that has parallels to our own.
It’s heart-warming—particularly in the current political climate—to see a film so openly feminist and so unwilling to cloak its views. The picture’s single-minded approach, however, does lead it into problems. The documentary is narrated and produced by Daisy Ridley, and multiple sources have made comparisons between her most well known role – Rey in The Force Awakens – and The Eagle Huntress’ protagonist. Otto Bell’s feature, however, has some less flattering parallels to Star Wars. There’s something very Disney about The Eagle Huntress’ blinkered simplicity. The audience is introduced to the forces opposing Aisholpan by a very heavily edited montage of tribal elders explaining why women can’t enter their ancient tradition. The clips feature (to us) comically dated views about women, each as if picked from a 1960’s guide of “How to Understand Women”. Girls can’t train because they are naturally afraid, one says. They are meant to be in the kitchen, espouses another.
The soundbites produce a chuckle but they are so smoothly cut and welded together it feels a bit … forced. Is it really the case that these are the only views of women these leaders have? What about other peoples’ opinions? The film doesn’t allow us to know – and it begins to become problematic. The nuances of an incredibly complex and nuanced Mongolian society are paved over to create a uniform patriarchal bogeyman, the same present here, there and everywhere. It helps to create a universal moral message at the centre of The Eagle Huntress, but does so at the expense of cultural specificity. Like a Disney rendering of an “other” culture, the framework to allow a generic narrative remains. Subtlety and detail, however, have fallen by the way side. It’s a shame: there is a lot to like about The Eagle Huntress, and no-one can doubt it’s heart is in the right place. The film’s soaring flight, however, feels a little wind assisted, and it only undermines the wider point it is trying to make.

The Eagle Huntress opens in cinemas on 16th December. The documentary is directed by Otto Bell, and is narrated by Daisy Ridley. Ridley and Morgan Spurlock acted as producers to the project. It is a certificate U.